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Supreme Court limits discrimination claims for emotional distress

The Supreme Court on Thursday upheld the dismissal of a discrimination lawsuit filed by a deaf, legally blind woman against a physical therapy business that wouldn’t provide an American Sign Language interpreter for her appointments.

In a 6-3 ruling with conservatives in the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that businesses that receive federal health care money can’t be sued for discrimination under the Affordable Care Act when the harm alleged is emotional, not financial.

Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in dissent that people who suffer discrimination often feel humiliation or embarrassment. “It is difficult to square the Court’s holding with the basic purposes that antidiscrimination laws seek to serve. One such purpose, as I have said, is to vindicate ‘human dignity and not mere economics,’” Breyer wrote, citing an opinion from his onetime boss, Justice Arthur Goldberg, in a key Civil Rights-era case.

Breyer noted in his opinion that some anti-bias laws, including against workplace discrimination, allow for damages for emotional distress.

The current case began when the woman, Jane Cummings, asked for an ASL interpreter for physical therapy appointments to treat chronic back pain with Premier Rehab Keller, in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

Cummings communicates primarily in ASL. But Premier Rehab said Cummings could “communicate with the therapist using written notes, lip reading, or gesturing,” Roberts wrote.

She went elsewhere, but then sued the business, asking for a court order against Premier Rehab and damages for emotional distress. Lower courts dismissed the lawsuit.